Photo by Malcolm Jackson
On the middle level of the ever moving station stop at Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights, where the subway and the elevated meet in a shaky embrace and humanity flows on a non-stop escalator between heaven and earth, the melting pot boils over with new arrivals as trains disgorge their loads. Here reed-flute players from the Andes, Mariachi orchestras from Mexico, Chinese erhu players, Flamenco guitarists, ventriloquists, acrobats and virtuosos of every description perform their exotic acts.
On a recent Sunday the crowd pressed to the right of the stairs in a long drawn-out amorphous ring, from the midst of which emanated deafening music. Even the two Jehovah’s Witnesses stationed stiff as wax figures to the left of the stairs gave up God’s business for the moment and joined the onlookers, since nobody seemed to be interested in their message.
The object of everyone’s rapt attention remained a mystery to the chance passerby until suddenly the wall of humanity parted a crack, revealing a tiny figure mistakable at first sight for a little boy, but soon recognizable—on account of the powerful shoulders—as an adult dwarf. With a black hat set at a dapper tilt, dark sunglasses and a tight black sequined jacket, he moved gracefully and rhythmically backwards, in the soft stepping, faked forward motion of Michael Jackson’s trademark cakewalk, transforming the filthy, chewing-gum-flecked, floor into his stage.
“So beat it, just beat it!” the familiar androgynous voice blasted from a somewhat battered boombox, as the dwarf abruptly grabbed his private parts, and with shoulders flung back, obscenely heaving his hips, dry-humped the air before him. Some snickered, others cheered. “Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man. You wanna stay alive, better do what you can. So beat it, just beat it!” echoed the shrill command. Whereupon, after lowering the jacket slowly, provocatively, first from the left shoulder, then from the right, to demonstrate with rippling muscles the amazing strength of his arms, he started trembling suggestively, ever more unabashedly, first with the chest cage, next with the stomach muscles, and finally with his entire body, consumed by a carefully choreographed orgasm. Some spectators laughed out loud. Others turned red, covering their children’s eyes.
But they did the dancer an injustice. For his dance was at once a great tribute and an extraordinary send-up, in which he invested his entire tragic being and a remarkable comic talent altogether worthy of Aristophanes and Harpo Marx. –“Showin’ how funky strong is your fight, it doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right. Just beat it, beat it!”
The crowd fell silent as the song came to an end, and the dwarf took a slow bow, his hat pushed back, his glasses pressed down over his nose, his sadly noble, strikingly handsome Latin Mestizo face held up like a hidden treasure with the pride of a true artist and the desperation of an eternal outsider. For a split second his size was forgotten. In that instant he also revealed a striking resemblance to the fallen popstar. Coins and crumpled banknotes flew through the air. Every injured soul saw himself reflected in that face. And as the spectators scattered, the two Jehovah’s Witnesses surreptitiously slinking back into their corner, the dwarf deftly swept up his take, whereupon with hat, glasses and expression once again set aright, he bit his lower lip and prepared to be born again in the next dance.
A writer in multiple modes, including fiction (A Modern Way To Die), drama (The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words) and translation (most recently, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist), Peter Wortsman is the recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award and The Geertje Potash-Suhr Prize of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, and was a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010. Also a widely published travel writer, his texts have appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.